- By Amalia Zatari
- BBC Russian
Snitching, or reporting neighbours, colleagues and even strangers to the authorities, was common in Russia’s Soviet era. Now, as the government cracks down on critics of the Ukraine war, people with personal grudges and political ideals are denouncing others once again.
“I was taught how to snitch by my grandfather who was a snitch himself,” claims a woman who goes by the name of Anna Korobkova. She says she lives in a large Russian city but refuses to say which one.
But she does say her grandfather was an anonymous informant for the Soviet secret police during Stalin’s reign, when denunciations were part of everyday life, and she’s following in his footsteps. Now, she is reporting anyone she thinks is a critic of the war in Ukraine.
Self-confessed serial snitch
Korobkova claims to have written 1,397 denunciations since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She says people have been fined, fired and labelled as foreign agents because of her denunciations.
“I do not feel sorry for them,” she reveals. “I feel joy if they are punished because of my denunciations.”
New censorship laws were introduced shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Since then, Korobkova has spent most of her free time online, often reporting people for “discrediting the Russian army” – an offence that carries a fine of up to 50,000 roubles ($560; £450) or up to five years’ imprisonment if it is committed more than twice.
Korobkova is very cautious about talking to me and will only communicate via email. She does not want to show her face and refuses to provide proof of her identity. She says this is because she frequently receives death threats and fears her information could get hacked or stolen.
She seems to have two motives for snitching on her fellow citizens. Firstly, she tells me she believes she is helping Russia defeat Ukraine and, secondly, she thinks it will help protect her own financial stability. She lives alone and works part-time as a humanities professor, relying heavily on her savings. But Korobkova fears Russia could end up paying reparations if the conflict goes Ukraine’s way and that could affect the finances of the whole country and everyone who lives there.
“All those who oppose the special military operation are rivals of my own wellbeing,” she explains, predicting a win for Ukraine would be a loss for her. “I could lose all my savings and would have to get a full-time job.”
Since the new censorship laws were introduced, more than 8,000 cases have been opened against people for discrediting the army, according to independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info.
Korobkova mostly reports people who speak to the media, especially those who appear on international outlets, such as the BBC. One of Korobkova’s targets is anthropologist Aleksandra Arkhipova.
“She has reported me seven times,” Arkhipova says. “Writing denunciations is her way of interacting with authorities. She considers it her mission.
“She has found her niche. Her denunciations silence experts quite effectively,” adds Arkhipova, who is now in exile and thinks Korobkova’s actions could have contributed to her being labelled a foreign agent by the Russian state in May.
“Friends of mine, whom she denounced, now refuse to give any comments to any media. So, you could say she has been successful. Mission completed.”
Another target was a teacher in Moscow called Tatiana Chervenko.
When Russia introduced patriotism classes in September 2022, Chervenko decided to teach maths instead, she told TV Rain, Russia’s last independent channel, which was shut down by the government and is now based in the Netherlands.
As a result, Korobkova, who saw her TV interview, started making denunciations against Chervenko, complaining to her employer, the Moscow education department and Russia’s child rights commissioner.
Chervenko was subsequently fired in December 2022.
Korobkova shows no remorse for her actions, instead she proudly keeps a database of people she has reported, including the consequences.
She claims that following her denunciations six people were fired from their jobs and 15 others issued administrative charges and fined.
Although Korobkova insists she targets people she believes are enemies of the state, other people have told the BBC denunciations are also being used in Russia to settle personal scores.
Imprisoned and longing for freedom
Fisherman Yaroslav Levchenko is from the Kamchatka Peninsula, in Russia’s far east, known not just for its volcanic landscapes and extraordinary wildlife but also for its large military presence. Many people in this region are pro-Putin including Levchenko’s colleagues.
In February 2023, Levchenko’s ship docked at the port of Kamchatka after a month-long fishing trip. He says a fellow fisherman offered him an alcoholic drink, which he refused. He believes the other man already held a grudge against him and they ended up in an argument. Levchenko explains that he was hit over the head with a bottle and later woke up in hospital.
Levchenko says when he was discharged and went to a police station to file a report, he was horrified to learn he was the one who had been reported – not for assault but for holding anti-war views. He claims police told him there was not enough evidence to bring criminal charges against his colleague.
Levchenko was then arrested on 13 July. According to court documents seen by the BBC, he is accused of justifying terrorism, charges he denies, and is being held in prison while he awaits trial.
The only way he can tell his story to the BBC is via letters, passed through his lawyer. “Investigators state I used physical force towards other seamen… expressing intentions of participating in hostilities against the Russian Federation,” Levchenko writes.
Levchenko’s friends tell me they think his denunciation was to divert the police’s attention away from the assault against him and the fact that alcohol was being consumed on board a ship, which was prohibited.
“I just want to come home,” Levchenko says. “The sky is just visible from my jail cell, through several rows of bars, and it’s unbearable,” he writes in a letter to his friend that was shared with the BBC.
Russian police have acknowledged they have been inundated with denunciations since the war began. Officials have told the BBC anonymously they are spending large amounts of time investigating and revising “endless charges on the discretisation of the army”.
“People are always looking for an excuse to denounce someone over the ‘special military operation’,” a recently retired police officer told the BBC, adding: “Whenever something real comes up, there’s nobody to investigate. Everyone’s gone to check on some grandma who saw a curtain that looked like the Ukrainian flag.”
With President Putin’s repeated calls to “punish betrayers” and the end of the war in Ukraine nowhere in sight, serial snitches like Korobkova show no sign of wanting to stop reporting on their fellow citizens.
“I’m going to keep writing denunciations,” she writes in an email to the BBC, adding: “I have a lot of work to do.”